Economic progress: Amid reductions, don’t discard vision

Atlanta Forward / The Editorial Board's Opinion: Atlanta and Georgia can’t afford to lose their foresight and mold-breaking spirit, even as projects are scaled back to match the new fiscal reality.

What makes a region and state excel in a global economy? That’s an important question as metro Atlanta and Georgia face yet another round of governmental cost-cutting.

One answer is to consider the tactic of more deep cuts as being sufficient to get the job done. Doing so has proved to be a reliable way to win friends and voters. We’re nearing another year in which tax revenue is likely to top out well below current spending forecasts. So targeted cuts are a necessary element of making budgets balance.

If we truly want to prosper, though, spending reductions won’t be the only tool we deploy against the Great Recession’s lingering grasp. Georgia needs more than another round of short-term cuts to keep us economically competitive in the longer-term.

That’s true in part because economic development — and the jobs that result — are the product of a complex equation of variables that continually shift as regions, states and nations make progress a priority.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that the words “entrepreneurship,” “innovation” and “education” were mentioned often by panelists during the recent Americas Competitiveness Forum here. With much of the world focused on those three themes, it’s clear that we starve them through underinvestment at our peril.

That Atlanta has hosted the forum of delegates from dozens of countries three times out of four speaks to our status as a world-class region. We didn’t gain that renown solely by winning a global penny-pinching contest. Yes, keeping the costs of doing business competitive has helped lure growing companies and their jobs to Atlanta. These days that’s a given for businesses hunting for a new home.

What really made Atlanta stand out were the mold-breaking investments that made our commitment to progress evident in concrete and steel. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the world’s-busiest example.

A will-do vision and spirit have been a major competitive advantage for Georgia and its capital city. We can’t afford to lose that now, even as we necessarily scale back projects to match the current fiscal reality.

Retaining our historical role as a magnet for business and investment will happen only if private-sector leaders believe we have the grit and foresight to fund government that’s adequate for the tasks at hand.

If CEOs have doubts about whether our schools will produce graduates who can continually learn new skills in today’s dynamic workplace, they may look elsewhere, perhaps even to states that spend more on education and produce results that justify the cost. The same holds true for funding of universities whose research can spawn startup companies and well-paying jobs.

How can Georgia invest smartly and balance its budget during a time of scarce tax revenue?

Dan London, North American managing director for Accenture consulting’s health and public service operating group, suggested last week that governments approaching the task in the most comprehensive, strategic manner will get through tough times in the best shape.

That can mean, for example, pairing “rapid cost reduction” with a well-thought-out reorganization or consolidation of agencies that retains service quality while lowering costs. That should prove a more-effective approach than only using the crisis-management staple of across-the-board cuts.

Some government entities are doing much more than moving savings from broad cuts directly into their general fund. “What we’re seeing from our clients is a desire to run a new playbook,” London said.

The smartest agencies across the country are investing some of the shaved-off dollars into, for example, new technology and systems that let them collect more revenue under existing fee and tax structures. Using what are called “predictive analysis” tools can help tax collectors pinpoint areas where what’s already owed can be more fully collected. That should prove politically palatable in this tax-averse state.

Thinking beyond tax cuts can help speed the drive toward recovery and move us ahead of competitors that are hampered by conventional thinking. We’ve exemplified innovation and courage before; we can do it again.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

Atlanta Forward: We look at major issues Atlanta must address in order to move forward as the economy recovers.

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